Primates by Nash

A noted wildlife artist specialising in primates, Essex-born Stephen D. Nash received degrees in graphic design/natural history illustration from the Royal College of Art, London.  Nash worked for Conservation International, and has illustrated numerous books, including:  Primates of West AfricaLemurs of Madagascar, and Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Primates volume.  He has won numerous awards and has been commemorated through the use of his name for the Brazilian titi monkey – Callicebus stephennashi.  Nash is currently based at Stony Brook University, Long Island, New York, as visiting research associate professor.  (See also previous blog.)


For examples of Nash’s work, see titles mentioned.   His illustrations have been used to identify the various primates.



A Seminal Collection of Primates in Art

An online collection of primate images has been sourced from a wide variety of historical art from numerous countries.  One can browse examples from antiquity to the 21st century.  Instrumental in compiling this amazing collection was Stephen D. Nash, scientific illustrator and adjunct, associate professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.  Primates are represented in thousands of prints, paintings, ceramics, mosaics, and sculpture.  Many entries are anatomical illustrations of primates – some used to identify various monkeys.  Some are illustrations from fables and other stories.  A few of the historical works that depict primates include:  “Madonna and Saints”  (1520), a Renaissance painting by Ludovico Mazzolino, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, “Cimiau and Efigenia” (1617), a painting from “The Seige of Lanka” illustrated manuscript series of the epic poem “The Ramayana”, attributed to the artist Manaku, (c. 1725), Guler, India, “Monkey and Crab” (1824), painting by Japanese artist Keisai Eisen, “Monkey and Cat” illustration (1867), by Gustave Dore, “Gorilla and Woman” (1887), by sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet, and “Monkey and Baby” (1952), a sculpture by Pablo Picasso.

More on artist Stephen D. Nash in a future blog.


See:  University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, The Nash Collection of Primates in Art.

Monkey Power

Amulets are among the most prolific artifacts found at ancient archaeological sites – often in burials.  These were personal ornaments – meant to be worn or carried.  Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts document the belief that amulets possessed  supernatural power, mainly to protect against evil and misfortune.  Most amulets were shaped like various animals, plants, celestial bodies and inanimate objects, but could also be natural objects such as shells, or even plant material.  Mediums varied, and included stone, ivory, alabaster, gold, silver, bone, shell and glass, as well as semi-precious stones.  Most popular was “faience”, or more correctly, glazed composition, which allowed the modelling or moulding of any shape.

Animal amulets found in Mesopotamia and Egypt include examples of primates, and many date from earliest Antiquity.  Baboons, and in Egypt, vervet monkeys, are shown standing or crouching – most often the latter pose.  Such amulets are found in numerous museums.  Four examples are especially notable.  A very early charm in the Liverpool World Museum, UK, represents a squatting baboon made of glazed composition, from modern Hierakonpolis, Upper Egypt, dating from c. 3000 – 2686 BCE.  From the same museum, an unusual amulet depicts a seated ape eating fruit.  Made from carved limestone, this object comes from Amarna, south of Cairo, and dates from c. 1352 – 1336 BCE.  A third example is found in the University of Pennsylvania Archaeological Museum in Philadelphia, US.  Representing a squatting monkey, the object is made of shell and was found in a suburb of ancient Ur, a 3rd millennium Sumerian city, modern southern Iraq.  The object – a pendant – has a hole to accommodate a chain or cord.  Finally, a monkey amulet from Egypt, carved from amethyst, and dating from c. 1985 – 1795 BCE, is found in the Brighton Museum collection, Brighton, England.  These objects can be seen on the websites of the museums mentioned – many more are found in other museums, worldwide.


See also:  Amulets, Flinders Petrie, Read Books, Ltd., 2011.

UCL Collection, London.

A Baboon on an Ancient “Clock”?

The water clock, or clepsydra (Greek for “to steal water”, or “water thief”), was an ancient device that measured the passage of time – the precursor of the hourglass (sand clock) and modern time-pieces.  Usually a stone vessel with sloping sides, a small hole at the bottom allowed water to drip out at a rate that could be measured by small circles or grooves on the inside.  The earliest example found so far, dating to c. 1382 BCE, was discovered by French Egyptologist Georges Legrain in 1904, at the excavated Temple of Amun-Ra, at Karnak (ancient Thebes), Upper Egypt.  (The artifact is in the Cairo Egyptian Museum.)  Large fragments of a few other examples can be found in the British Museum and the Petrie Museum (UCL), London.  Two small, model, water clocks are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Both objects have a figure of a baboon shown squatting (usual pose) at the front.  An animal manifestation of the Egyptian god Thoth – a deity linked to the sun and the moon, to the invention of writing, to science and astronomy – the sacred baboon shared the god’s attributes, and Thoth was often represented as a dog-faced baboon (Papio hamadryas).  The Met models were probably objects used in the worship of Thoth.  An especially intriguing example of a baboon as part of a clepsydra is in the Oriental Institute/University of Chicago collection.  A figure of a squatting baboon projects from one side of the artifact.  Finely crafted, the tiny primate is the focal point of the piece.  Made of limestone, the work has been dated to c. 284-246 BCE, and was found at Memphis, south of Cairo.



Oriental Institute/University of Chicago: Clepsydra on display – Egyptian Gallery, Registration number E16875.!?9=clepsydra

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Model Clepsydra on display – Gallery 134, Accession number 17.194.2341/dated c. 664=30 BCE.

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Model Clepsydra on display – Gallery 134, Accession number 86.1.93/dated c. 4th C. BCE.

Ancient Egyptian Science, A Source Book, vol. 2, M. Clagett, 1995.

Amulets, C. Andrews, London: British Museum Press, 1994.




Pre-Columbian Artifact II

Monkeys are prevalent images in Mesoamerican art.  Many examples are represented in a realistic style.  The lesser-known Mezcala/Balsas culture of south-west Mexico created primate figures in a very different – rather abstract – style.  Unfortunately, because few archaeological excavations have been undertaken in the area, little is known of this culture and its unique sculptures.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a small, stone/serpentine monkey figure – approximately 3 inches high – from the Balsas River region of Guerrero State, which dates from between the 1st and the 8th c. CE ( Accession no. 1979.206.1208).  Seated, with long tail upraised and bent over, the primate seems a fine example of Mezcala sculpture.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) also has a small stone monkey attributed to Mezcala, dated to c. 500 BCE – 1000 CE.   The Mezcala style ( possibly developed c. 700 BCE) may have been strongly influenced by the enigmatic (well-documented) Olmec civilization that flourished in the (modern) states of Veracruz and Tabasco (c. 1200 – 400 BCE), and also known for their representations of animal gods.  A collection of Mezcala art is found in the Regional Museum of Guerrero Mexico, as well as in a number of museums world-wide.


See also:!?q=Mezcala%20monkey

Mexico’s Indigenous Past, A. Lopez Austin and L. L. Lujan, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Mexico, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, M. D. Coe and R. Koontz, Thames & Hudson, 2002.

A Divine Primate – Pre-Columbian Artifact I

spider-monkey-02Monkeys – especially spider monkeys – were important to Mesoamerican cultures, and a popular subject for artists creating sculpture, pottery and textiles.  Museums worldwide have examples of these objects in their collections.  Forms range from the realistic to the stylized to the abstract.   Monkeys figured in mythology,  the Aztec calendar includes a monkey, and today, monkey impersonators are a part of religious festivals.  The animals have been respected for their intelligence, and to many, symbolize hope.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York recently added a unique figure to their collection – a seated, stone spider monkey, grasping its tail, and dressed to represent the Aztec Wind God.  The expressive image wears wristlets, anklets, and an intricate neckpiece and earrings.  Dating from c. 1250 – 1521 CE, the sculpture is approximately 16 inches high, and is on display in gallery 358.  The Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico City, has a stone sculpture of a dancing spider monkey wearing the Aztec Wind God mask.  Found at a Mexico City metro station excavation, the figure is about 24 inches high.

Spider monkeys (family Atelidae) live mainly in the upper canopy of the tropical forests of Central and South America.  Their diet consists of fruits, leaves, flowers and insects.  All seven species are under threat – the black-headed and the brown spider monkeys are critically endangered, as shown on the Red List.



Ancient Art of Latin America from the Collection of Jay C. Leff, E. K. Easby, New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1966.

Mythology of the Aztecs and Maya, D. M. Jones, London: Southwater/Anness, 2003/2007.

Mythological Baboons

At Luxor (ancient Thebes) four sacred stone baboons stand in a row on the pedestal of the remaining obelisk at the mortuary temple of Ramesses II (reigned 1292 – 1225 BCE) – it’s twin stands in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris.  The hefty, imposing figures represent the male hamadryas baboon – so sacred to the ancient Egyptians that many were ritually mummified after death.  A frieze of carved baboons guards the entrance to one of the massive, rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, southern Egypt – located above the heads of the colossal statues of Ramesses II.  The latter was a major site for sun worship.  Mythologically, the ancient Egyptians translated the baboons’ early morning ritual of grooming – with front feet raised – into a ritual of sun worship.

The hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) ranges from northeast Africa – mainly Ethiopia – to eastern Sudan, northern Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  The species, however, extinct in Egypt.  Found – usually close to water – in hilly areas, mountains, meadows, and in arid subdesert, the baboons are mainly terrestrial, but often sleep in trees and on cliffs.  A varied diet includes grass, fruit, seeds, insects and small mammals.  The male baboon is distinctive, with furry silver-grey to white mantle and pink face.  Hamadryas baboons have a highly structured social system, the basis of which has been considered patriarchal, each male having a small group of females and their young.  This primate is classified as of Least Concern (LC) on the Red List and on Cites Appendix II.


See also:   In Quest of the Sacred Baboon: A Scientist’s Journey, H. Kummer and M. Biederman-Thorson, 1995.

Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples and Museums, Kent R. Weeks, 2005.

Abu Simbel Aswan and the Nubian Temples, Marco Zecchi, 2004.

Portrait of Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys Claims NHM “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” Award

“The Golden Couple”, a photo-portrait of snub-nosed monkeys by Dutch wildlife photographer Marsel van Oosten, has won the top award in the 54th annual wildlife photographic contest at the Natural History Museum in London.  Wildlife photographers from 95 countries competed for the prize.  “The Golden Couple” was chosen by judges  especially for its subtle artistic imagery, stunning colour and soft lighting, reminding the viewer that nature is precious.

The endangered (Red Listed) golden snub-nosed monkey is found in it’s only habitat – the small area of temperate forest in south-west China.  Diurnal, the species lives in groups of about 20 to 30 individuals in winter and as many as 200 in summer – groups often combine, numbering 500 to 600 individuals that can more easily ward off predators.  Diet includes pine needles, flower buds, tender bamboo shoots and fruits.  Dense fur protects against subzero winters.  A flat muzzle may also aid in combating extremely cold temperatures.  It is estimated that between 8,000 and 15,000 of these primates are left in the wild.

The exhibition at the Natural History Museum will run to 30 June, 2019, and then travel to the U. S.



Guide to the Wildlife of Southwest China, W. McShea and Sheng Li, 2018.


In Memory of Koko

Gorillas in Films and Reality

Primates have featured in films for decades – the gorilla a leading “actor”.  Sadly, because of a lack of understanding on the part of writers and producers, the gorilla was most often portrayed as a monstrous killer.  As early as 1908, the Conan Doyle silent film, “The Great Murder Mystery” featured a killer gorilla.  Through the 1920’s and 1930’s numerous films continued to characterise gorillas as fearsome predators, including:  “The Gorilla” (silent film, 1927), “Stark Mad” (1929), “The Gorilla” (1930), the original “King Kong” (1933 – inspired a number of remakes, the most recent, 2005), “House of Mystery” (1934), the popular Clyde Beatty offering, “The Lost Jungle” (1934), in which a gorilla guards a lost city and its treasure, and “The Gorilla” (1939).  Thankfully, primatologist/naturalist Dian Fossey (1932-1985) – studying endangered gorillas in the mountain forests of Rwanda (1960’s to 1980’s) – identified true characteristics of gorillas.  Gorillas, while all individuals, are mainly shy and rarely aggressive, vegetarian members of family groups.  In Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey relates – on first contact with gorillas – it was the shyness of behavior that most impressed her.  David Attenborough helped to reinforce this fact in a segment of “Life on Earth” (1979), when he was filmed with playful baby mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  And Koko, the female west lowland gorilla raised by American animal psychologist Francine Patterson, from 1971 to Koko’s sad death recently at age 46, was another proof of gentle behavior.  From 1984 to 2015, Koko adopted and helped care for five kittens.  And Koko’s calmness and intelligence were basic to her ability to learn/use “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL).

Today, endangered gorillas face numerous threats – habitat loss, poaching, political instability, rabies, and human viruses/health threats.  However, groups such as Gorilla Doctors work tirelessly to save the lives of wild mountain and eastern lowland gorillas.  Gorilla Doctors international team of veterinarians provides hands-on care to sick and injured gorillas in the wild.  And events such as the “Great Gorilla Run” in London (16th annual run, 2018) help to raise funds.


See also:

BBC Earth – “The Great Gorilla Wipeout”, by Nick Funnel

Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Mountain Gorillas, G. Eckhart  and A. Lanjouw, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008